J.C. Chandor's debut feature dramatizes the 2008 economic meltdown. You don't need to know what derivatives or equity swaps or mortgage-backed securities are to understand what is going on. But if you do know, you'll know how much the film gets right. This isn't a film filled with boardroom conspiracies like Oliver Stone proposed in WALL STREET: MONEY NEVER SLEEPS; this is a story of survival and how ugly that can be.
Set at a historic investment firm, not too far removed from Lehman Brothers, layoffs have started. Downsizing. On his way out Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci, THE LOVELY BONES) hands his underling Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto, STAR TREK) a Flash drive with what he was working on and says, "Be careful." Peter is a new risk analyst; he's a trained rocket scientist, but the pay on Wall Street is much better. He spends the night looking over the data and what he finds isn't pretty.
First Peter calls in his friend Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley, EASY A), a guy who is preoccupied with what everyone else is making, and Will Emerson (Paul Bettnay, CREATION), who he assumes is his new boss. When Will sees the numbers he calls his boss Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey, AMERICAN BEAUTY). And so begins a long night of the bad news trickling up the chain of command till and an early morning meeting is called and the CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons, REVERSAL OF FORTUNE) is helicoptered in. Tuld asks for Peter to explain the problem in plain English, which he then boils down to the company is holding a big bag of crap. So he asks his guys to sell off all of the bags of crap as quickly as possible before those who buy them know what's even in the bag.
Sam has problems with the idea of asking his brokers to dump toxic assets on to their clients. He asks John, "will anyone buy anything from us after today?" John doesn't care. He knows what they are doing will put some suckers out of business. He knows that his brokers will be fired and won't be trusted anywhere again, John only cares that his business isn't the one going under. He's still worth over a billion dollars so that's what really matters. He'll have a nice meal and he'll feel better about the whole thing by the afternoon.
When something like this happens, everyone knows that the problem was a system wide failure. Wrong data was being used, because it allowed them to sleep at night on the pillow of cash everyone was making. Eric had warned his boss Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore, G.I. JANE), but she didn't emphasize it to those above. The barrier of bad news is not always rewarded. Sam's boss Jared Cohen (Simon Baker, TV's THE MENTALIST) is one of the company's top young execs and he is only worried about keeping that title. He goes around making sure that everyone is willing to play ball.
The script presents interesting character dynamics. Quinto's character is the innocent who just likes playing with numbers. He's looking to others for what's right, but he's beginning to realize no one knows what is right or doesn't want to know. Bregman is the flip side. All he cares about is the money and only gets frightened when his job might be on the line. Spacey's Sam is the veteran whose dog has just died, literally and figuratively. Will is pragmatic and kind to his friends, but when it comes right down to it he loves the game and doesn't care what happens to those who don't play. Jared and Sarah are cold bastards. Irons gives Tuld a rarified quality. He is a man with great power who doesn't try to intimidate people with that power. He lives by the idea that you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar and believes money tastes better than honey.
Toward the end Irons lists all the stock market crashes and tells Sam that it always happens because they can't help themselves and no one is there to stop them. Hubris is the downfall of so many men. But when you have a great deal of cash you can pay someone to fall on your sword for you, which results in the little people bleeding out.